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1968: february 29

Robert McNamara's reign as Secretary of Defense ended 40 years ago today.

McNamara began as Secretary under Kennedy, and last almost all the way through the Johnson regime. He was known for bringing the strategies of the business managerial class to government. He was an integral part of the team that led the American response to the Vietnam War. In later years, he apologized ... and apologized ... and apologized.

Alexander Cockburn wrote of McNamara:

"Management," McNamara declared in 1967, "is the gate through which social and economic and political change, indeed change in every direction, is diffused throughout society." Substitute "party organization" for "management" and you have Lenin. From "democratic centralism" to bureaucratic centralism.

The managerial ideal for McNamara was military dictatorship. McNamara threw money at Pinochet's Chile after Allende's overthrow and at the military dictators of Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, the Philippines and Indonesia. The darker the dictatorship, the more lavishly McNamara rewarded it.

Noam Chomsky also had some things to say about McNamara:

He is a dull, narrow technocrat who questioned nothing. He simply accepted the framework of beliefs of the people around him. And that's their framework. That's the Kennedy liberals. We cannot commit a crime. It's contradiction in terms. Anything we do is by necessity not only right, but noble. Therefore, there can't be a crime.

If you look at his mea culpa, he's apologizing to the American people. He sent American soldiers to fight an unwinnable war, which he thought early on was unwinnable. The cost was to the U.S. It tore the country apart. It left people disillusioned and skeptical of the government. That's the cost. Yes, there were those three million or more Vietnamese who got killed. The Cambodians and Laotians are totally missing from his story. There were a million or so of them. There's no apology to them.

friday random ten, 1965 edition

1) Fontella Bass, "Rescue Me." It hit #1 on the R&B charts, the only time Bass would make it to the top. Bass had an interesting career ... she played piano for Little Milton and recorded with avant-garde jazzbos the Art Ensemble of Chicago (she was married to band member Lester Bowie). Not a one-hit wonder at all.

2) Buffy Sainte-Marie, "Until It's Time for You to Go." Her vibrato-laced vocals were inescapable for much of the 60s. Sainte-Marie was much more experimental in her work than other female folk artists of the time, which isn't to say all of her experiments worked. This is thought by some to be her most famous song, although I suspect that just means it's the most-covered of her songs ... the video link is to one of those covers.

3) Otis Redding, "I've Been Loving You Too Long." The greatest soulman with his greatest song. "This is the Love Crowd, right?"

4) Jackie DeShannon, "What the World Needs Now Is Love." Perhaps the only person who both dated Jimmy Page and was played by Liz Phair on a TV show.

5) Sonny Bono, "Laugh at Me." "I don't care, let 'em laugh at me. If that's the fare I have to pay to be free, then baby, laugh at me, and I'll cry for you and I'll pray for you." The video link is in the "must see to believe" category.

6) The Who, "My Generation." If one should never trust anyone over 30, and if we hope we die before we get old, then it should be noted that Sonny Bono was 30 in 1965 when "Laugh at Me" was released. Pete and Rog' are still alive. A seminal rock track, with the greatest rock drummer of them all, a bass solo (!), and a famous video moment when Pete's hearing was fucked up for the rest of his life.

7) The Gentrys, "Keep on Dancing." A fine junk-pop tune, but what made the Gentrys noteworthy was band member Jimmy Hart, who went on to pro rassling fame as "The Mouth of the South." Video introduced by the star of Hell Comes to Frogtown.

8) The Beatles, "Drive My Car." From the "let's make different albums for England and the States" period, "Drive My Car" was the opening song of Rubber Soul in the U.K. version but didn't appear at all on the U.S. version, which was more folk-rockish as a result.

9) The Dixie Cups, "Iko Iko." The tapes were rolling in the studio as the Dixie Cups goofed their way through this one while someone beat drum sticks on an ashtray. Add a dollop of bass guitar after the fact, and voila! A hit song more minimalist than Prince doing "Kiss." Video link courtesy of the immortal thunderbird1958.

10) The Fugs, "Boobs a Lot." This one, I guess, is from the "Write What You Know" school: "Do you like boobs a lot? Yes, I like boobs a lot." I like this song. A lot. I have to admit I am surprised I was able to find a video for this one. A dumb video, but at least the song's on there. Of course, the song is dumb, too. People like the Fugs (and me) get dumb when we think about boobs.

no, i haven't seen these

Last Sunday, Mick LaSalle wrote a piece about watching five classic movies he had never seen. This article has caused a ripple of sorts (meaning, I have no idea how big a ripple, but at least two bloggers have responded), not necessarily because of the movies he'd missed until finally catching up to them (they were To Kill a Mockingbird, Young Frankenstein, An Affair to Remember, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey), but because he admitted to not seeing five classic movies. All film critics are supposed to pretend they've seen 'em all. I'm reminded of my orals exams in grad school, which were apparently designed to give me practice in bullshitting my way past students who asked me about books I hadn't read.

I figured I should fess up to five classics I haven't seen, too. I can't promise that I'll follow LaSalle's lead and actually watch these, but I will try. The question is, how to pick the five? I decided to start with the website They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? This site has an ongoing list ranking the top 1000 films of all time. The five highest-ranking films I haven't seen are Tokyo Story, Sunrise, L'Atalante, Children of Paradise, and Persona. A very arty list! Perhaps I should also include something a little more recent. TSPDT also has a list of most acclaimed films of the 21st century. The highest-ranking ones there I haven't seen? A History of Violence, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, and Zodiac.

Hmmm ... maybe I need a more populist approach. Here are the highest-ranking movies I haven't seen from the IMDB Users: Schindler's List, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, The Lives of Others, Pan's Labyrinth.

Now, before you make fun of me for outing myself in this way, admitting I haven't seen these "classics," I'll ask how many of you have ever seen The Wire?

So ... There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men are on two of the lists. I suppose I should watch those. Children of Paradise is at the top of my Netflix queue, so that's a third. For the other two? I don't know ... anyone want to vote, do it in comments. And tell me a few classic movies YOU have never seen.

1968: february 27

Imagine the nation turning on the evening news to find out the day's happenings from the most trusted man in the country. OK, we've already dated ourselves. The evening news is an afterthought for many in the 21st century ... we have many ways to get our news, now. And the idea that the most trusted man in the country might be a journalist? I don't think anyone feels that is possible given the current structure of our news media.

But in 1968, nationally televised news came from only three networks (ABC, CBS and NBC). NBC had Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, ABC had ... well, I'm gonna have to look that one up, hold on a second ... their anchor at the time was a man named Bob Young. CBS, of course, had Walter Cronkite, a few years before he trademarked "the most trusted man in America." Cronkite first made a name for himself in the news world with his work during WWII. By 1962, he was the anchor of the CBS Evening News, a job he kept for almost 20 years. His steadfast coverage of the assassination of JFK is often cited as a primary reason why the public trusted "Uncle Walter."

As the Tet Offensive continued into February of 1968, Cronkite went to Vietnam to see the situation for himself. On February 27, Cronkite, by that time back in his familiar anchor seat, ended the newscast with an editorial comment, in itself a startling switch from the norm. He said that he wanted to sum up what he'd found in Vietnam, and began noting that Tet looked to be a draw, with neither winners or losers. He anticipated further large battles, and further standoffs. He expressed fears about what continued stalemates might lead to: if there was to be no "real give-and-take negotiations," then escalation was sure to occur, "and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster." After which came this:

President Johnson supposedly said afterwards, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America."

the professional

Back when I was in grad school, I was asked to describe Lolita in one sentence. I said something like "A middle-aged man fucks his 12-year-old step-daughter." When it was argued that Nabokov was a brilliant writer, I replied that he might well be brilliant, but if you wrapped a dog turd in a Tootsie-Roll wrapper, it would still taste like shit.

I thought I was clever when I was a grad student.

Apparently, the French version of The Professional (Léon) is more explicit regarding the relationship between the title character and the 12-year-old girl, Mathilda,  who becomes something of a partner to him. According to the IMDB, some of the scenes which were eliminated when the movie was released in the U.S. include "Mathilda asking Leon to have sex with her and Leon refusing ... Mathilda and Leon sleeping together in a bed ... Leon and Matilda going to a restaurant to celebrate her first hit." It probably says something about American Puritanical sensibilities that scenes like this had to be hidden from our view, and there's probably someone out there making a connection between those sensibilities and Nabokov's satirical view of America.

The thing is, there's something of the dog turd about The Professional, and I can't see that the missing scenes would help ... in fact, they'd just pile on the dookie. Natalie Portman is terrific in this movie, making her attempt to become a hit-man seem reasonable enough, at least in the context of the movie. But she doesn't get any help from writer-director Luc Besson. She suffers through the horror of having her entire family gunned down, and beyond an affection for her younger brother that is barely established, she recovers remarkably quickly, proceeding to insinuate herself into the life of the professional hit-man who saved her. Precocious isn't a big enough word to hold all that Mathilda encompasses. She can shoot, she can cuss, she comes across like a pre-teen sexpot ... it barely matters that she never actually kills anyone or fucks anyone, it's enough that we know she's capable. What this says about 12-year-old American girls, I have no idea, and in fairness, Besson has no interest in presenting a neo-realist study ... his New York City is drawn from fantasy. But the end result is a stylish muddle, with Portman's fine work almost drowned out by Gary Oldman's weird-even-for-him performance as a killer DEA agent.

I'm not sure why I missed this one back in the day, and over the years, I got the impression it was some kind of classic. So I was disappointed to find it was merely a mediocre wannabee-kinky mess.

out of breath

What makes us like a bad guy? Not talking real world, here, talking fiction. Why is Omar Little of The Wire so beloved of the show's fans? He's a thug, a thief, a murderer. But he tries to live by a code, he robs other bad guys, and Michael K. Williams plays the hell out of the part. He also lived much of his life outside of the institutions that turn everything into fossils on The Wire.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg play Michel and Patricia in Breathless, and neither is a "good" person. Michel, like Omar, is a thug and a thief and a murderer; Patricia is an amoral dilettante who tries on attitudes and emotions and clothing with equal affectation. We love these characters, even though they wouldn't love us ... they don't love anything, although since they are disaffected it's not like they hate, either. Belmondo and Seberg are part of the reason we love Michel and Patricia ... director Jean-Luc Godard is another ... cinematographer Raoul Coutard is in the mix, too. But none of this really answers my question, and this blog post isn't going to cough up an answer: ultimately, I have no idea why we love certain bad guys but not others.

Breathless is not an "unheralded film," obviously. It is one of the most influential films ever made, and for many of us, one of the greatest as well ("influential" does not always equal "greatest"). The first time I saw Breathless, I stayed in the theater and immediately watched it a second time. That remains the only time in my life I've done that. I just watched it again, and I loved it again, and I loved Belmondo and Seberg, and I really have no explanation. But I also love Bonnie and Clyde, and without Breathless there is no Bonnie and Clyde. Of course, the definition of "influential" is that without the one, there wouldn't be others ... Bonnie and Clyde is hardly the only movie about which this could be said regarding Breathless.

Here's another thing I've heard said, where I don't know how true the statement is. One thing about the great period of American movies between 1967 and the mid-70s is that there was a great audience for the films. Young people in particular cared deeply about movies, and happily educated themselves, auto-didact style, so that "everyone" had seen Breathless and many other Godard films. Now, the argument goes, American movies are mostly crap, but so are American audiences. It's not just that the young people today don't know Breathless ... it's that many of them don't know the modern equivalent (what would it be? Run Lola Run? Diva?). Like I say, I don't know if this "theory" is true, about the Golden Era or about today.

Oh, and this is the kind of thing I watch when I'm not worried about keeping up with the Oscars ... an old Godard movie. Not saying that to pump my snob status ... saying it because, whether because I'm old and crotchety or because I care about "quality," I'd rather watch Breathless again than watch many current movies for the first time. I am an old fart.